Exciting things can happen when you experiment with different sounds. Neo soul is a prime example of how blending genres can create something unique and exciting. With a healthy mix of soul, R&B, jazz, blues, funk, and even hip hop, neo soul gives anyone the opportunity to join in get those creative juices flowing!
This article will help you get into the groove of neo soul by showing you 10 common neo-soul chord progressions and stylistic approaches used in the genre.
We'll also teach you some key techniques to help achieve that neo-soul sound, such as:
- Strumming/picking patterns
- Rhythmic ideas
- Chord variations
- Adapting your own style
Beyond the 10 neo soul chords
Neo soul, much like blues and R&B, is more focused on ‘feel’ than technical ability.
That sense of feel comes from the emotion of the player, and less from the actual chords.
- The chords don’t tell you what to say – they’re just tools to help you express yourself.
- Even though some chords may have a specific quality, you bring the emotion into them through embellishments and expressive playing.
Understanding some basic music theory will help you get the most out of this article.
- If you know a little bit about chord construction and inversions you’ll be fine.
- Recognizing the notes on the fretboard is a plus.
That being said, we don’t want to get too theory-heavy – this is aimed at beginner and intermediate players.
For that reason, we’ll only focus on 7th chords and leave extensions for another day.
10 neo soul chord progressions every guitarist needs to know
If you’re familiar with the numbers system, you can play these progressions in any key – if not, we’ve included the chord names in the key of C major.
- I - vi - IV - V (Cmaj7 - Am7 - Fmaj7 - G7)
- ii - V - I (Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7)
- I - IV - iv - V (Cmaj7 - Fmaj7 - Am7 - G7)
- iii - vi - ii - V (Em7 - Am7 - Dm7 - G7)
- vi - IV - I - V (Am7 - Fmaj7 - Cmaj7 - G7)
- IV - iv - I (Fmaj7 - Fm7 - Cmaj7)
- ii - V - vi - IV (Dm7 - G7 - Am7 - Fmaj7)
- ii - iv - V (Dm7 - Fm7 - G7)
- I - IV - V - IV (Cmaj7 - Fmaj7 - G7 - Fmaj7)
- I - V - vi - iii - IV - I (Cmaj7 - G7 - Am7 - Em7 - Fmaj7 - Cmaj7)
Many of these progressions have jazz roots and have been used in many different genres, but they all work really well in the neo-soul style too. Try them out!
Chord progressions are just the start of building that neo-soul sound. There are many other elements to consider, so let’s keep going.
If these chord progressions are too tricky for you yet, check out these neo soul guitar chords for beginners.
How to use these neo-soul chord progressions
Experimenting with different strumming patterns
Neo soul is groove and rhythm oriented. That means it’s often the bass and drums that will guide the rest of the instruments and the music.
One tip for your basic strumming or picking patterns is to follow the bass drum hits. You can play short staccato notes each time the bass drum hits – this gives that tight “in-the-pocket” vibe.
A few tricks you can use when playing chords to make them more interesting are:
- Licks using chord tones
- Slides into chords
In most genres, guitar effects play a big part in a guitarist's sound – neo soul is no different.
- Commonly, a phaser and delay are added, which creates a soft, mellow sound.
- A sustained chord with a phaser and delay added will create its own pulse – it almost becomes like the beating heart of the ensemble.
- The spacious style of neo soul allows for some sonic experimentation – so get your pedals out and play around!
Scroll further for adding variations and substitutions!
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Adding variations and substitutions
Memorizing chord progressions is not enough to truly express yourself. It's important to really understand the chords you’re playing so you can vary them and add different flavors when you need to.
Take a look at this video and pay close attention to what’s happening.
- The band plays the same four chords for the entire duration of the video, but it never gets boring.
- Changing up the rhythm and chord voicings keeps it engaging.
- Each bandmember understands their role and how best to serve the song.
When you serve the song, you play what's required in the moment. Either you take the lead, or you add emotion and flavor to the background.
Using chord progressions in original compositions
The phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants" is true for any creative endeavor – we take what others before us have made and try to build upon it.
However, there’s a fine line between being inspired by our musical heroes and just ripping them off – nobody likes a copycat!
- The best way to avoid this is to study as many different musicians and styles as possible.
- You’ll naturally create a unique mix of what you like from each – that’s how you find your own voice.
- Then, even if you cover classic songs, your own style will shine through and you won't just sound like a poor imitation of the original.
So, what are some simple ways we can use classic chord progressions and make them our own?
- Switch one chord to change the entire sound of a progression.
- Add different extensions to give a chord a whole new flavor.
- Try different rhythmic patterns, or even use an odd meter to really spice it up!
- Experiment with shell chords (where you only play the 1st, 3rd, and 7th) – different chords will inspire different movements.
Try some of these ideas using the chord progressions above.
Playing in a neo-soul ensemble
Like all bands, you need to be able to show and receive cues from others – this takes practice. The more you play with the same people the more you’ll learn about each other’s quirks and get better at reading their signals.
Always be mindful when in a group – it’s a collective experience and paying attention to yourself as well as everyone else is important.
- Remember to give plenty of space for each instrument to be heard and focus on working together.
- Occasionally there will be time for solos, but this is always in service of the music and the performance – this relaxed style is all about collaboration.
- It’s all about the overall sound of the group – not individuals showing off their lighting-fast licks.
Neo soul is an awesome new genre that’s steadily gaining popularity – what’s so exciting is it's appealing to guitarists from so many different genres.
Often described as “not quite jazz, not quite soul, and not quite blues”, neo soul is really all of the above, without being boxed into just one style.
All we know is, we love the sounds, style, and players in this genre – what more do you need?
If you want to learn more about neo soul guitar, we have a guided Neo-Soul Learning Pathway you can take to learn the ins and outs of neo-soul lead and rhythm guitar. With daily practice exercises and ultra-guided lessons, you’ll know exactly what to work on at every step of the way. Check out a 14-day free trial today.
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Become an expressive neo-soul guitarist in 3 months.Learn more
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